Making The Cut: Why Cultivated Meat Might Just Be The Best Part Of An Animal That Never Even Existed
Updated: Apr 19
Whether you are a meat scientist or a meat farmer, by now you will have noticed that there’s a new cut in town: cultivated meat has finally captured the attention of the food world at large. Lately, we read a lot about pound-for-pound comparisons of cultivated vs. conventional meat that nonetheless have to acknowledge the limited singular biomass that constitutes the whole animal. And precisely because animals don’t come in aggregate pound forms, but in individual bodies, there are physiological restrictions to anatomical muscle and fat differentiations no matter how valuable it would be for a cow to be 80% filet mignon. But the discourse of replacing the single animal, or even its distinctive, edible body parts with its cultivated equivalents could use a little more imagination of what cultivated meat truly could achieve if we did away with thinking about the qualitative bio-boundary of meat.
What if there was an even better cut than the most premier piece of Wagyu beef or Bluefin tuna? What if the most highly priced and sought-after cut of meat suddenly had sustainable, ethical, and cruelty-free competition?
Fellow anthropologist Alex Blanchette’s excellent ethnography Porkopolis (2020) inspired one exciting new way we should think about the potential of cultivated meat. Dissecting the industrial pig as an economic, political, and socio-cultural determinant of modern animal agriculture, Blanchette writes about the value distribution within the single animal body that reveals a global pork landscape: for example, the more valuable, tender shoulder goes straight to Japan, while the less valuable, inedible parts get rendered into common American household product ingredients. Indeed, Blanchette makes a compelling argument that almost nothing of the industrial pig is wasted, with every part being subject to maximized value extraction, so much so that archaeologists of the future will be hard pressed to find any remains of pig consumption in the earth’s strata, and might therefore falsely conclude that we didn’t care much about eating pork.
But the most intriguing aspect of Blanchette’s embodied porcine value hierarchy is the opportunity for cultivated meat to become not a mere match or replacement for the best cuts of meat, but to emerge as a new cut that cannot be biomorphed or bioengineered into a new generation of animal. I justify this cut to carry the qualifier “better” because even the “best” piece of meat still has an enormous carbon footprint and consumes massive amounts of water, food, land, energy, etc. I imagine this new cut to be similar to developing novel real estate value in virtual worlds that allow for “terraforming” by suspending the geological limitation of actual worlds and adding or expanding upon the earth’s usable surface (see Boellstorff 2008). In terms of meat, this means that we could suspend our thinking about a steak as the best part of finite animal bodies, and instead think about the cultivated steak as a more ethical, cruelty free, and more sustainable part of it. So if prime conventional cuts are the “tens” of meat choices, wouldn’t the cultivated cut be the “eleven” we would have if we could?
Original image by pch.vector on Freepik
If we accept the fact that a single animal can be arbitrarily cut up into vastly different price categories based on equally arbitrary cut preferences, then we may not be so far off in adding a new cut that tastes as good as the top existing cut, but appeases our growing appetite for ethics and sustainability. Ask 10 people from different cultural backgrounds about what the “best” part of any food animal is and you will likely get 10 different answers that reflect locality of tastes and culinary traditions. And as we tend to fixate culturally on the ever-expanding and newly improved features of smartphones that no one could have imagined a decade ago, why couldn’t we imagine cultivated meat as a similarly new “feature” of a familiar food animal?
This new cut of meat might intrigue not just experiment-happy foodies but virtually every informavore who is hungry for sustainable food transparency. Still, the cultural hunger for sustainable food is unsuitable for striking a fair balance in trying to stem the loss of biodiversity. Because if this were truly our honest goal, the exculpatory move would be to eat up the net result of over-farming, and especially over-fishing: jellyfish! The proliferation of millions of jellyfish in increasingly warming waters with fewer and fewer natural predators might just deliver on low fat, high protein food that is – forgive the pun – the most transparent dinner out there. Good luck putting that on the “choose your protein” menu section, though. I think we’ll stick to the steak for now.
Of course, the pressing question of price parity or affordability looms large over debates about cultivated meat. But here, too, we tend to forget the cost to the planet that “affordability” of conventional meat entails. Indeed, even if that filet mignon is already quite expensive, it should cost at least twice as much if we take into consideration a “tax” on our most valuable asset – nature – which allows that filet to exist in the first place but is depreciating at rates never seen before. So if we were to add the cost of what it would take not to tax the planet to cultivated meat, we might justify its considerably high price. And although this blog is about new cuts of meat, the unstructured cultivated burger or chicken nugget tells essentially the same story on the menu of being “better” by virtue of what it isn’t.
What else could this new cut of meat be if it didn’t have to come in familiar bio-limited morphologies? The geometric imagination of cultivated cuts surely makes for delightfully new plate aesthetics beyond sad “towers” of meat shakily leaning against a stack of grilled asparagus. Think about the new cuts as versatile design blocks that bring a fresh edge to foamy spheres and colorful sauce lines drizzled across plates. Assisted by 3-D bioprinting technology, pyramids, triangles, squares, rounds, or ovals invite playful innovation that would look forced and cumbersome, if not wasteful, to create with conventional meat cuts (after all, the pork medallion doesn’t exist on pigs, either). It could also move meat from generic commodities to brand icons easily recognized by diners on dinner plates just like the infamous Pringle potato chip. Lastly, remember that menu space was also untapped brand real estate until Impossible rebranded Burger King’s veggie burger, and Oreos rebranded the cookies-and-ice cream concoction at Dairy Queen.
But even if the new cut of meat came in “classic” or familiar shapes, and told the same olfactory or palatable story as conventional meat, its sustainable distinction will undeniably nudge people to think about making an active choice for or against it when it sits side by side on a menu. And just like “grass-fed”, “free-range”, or “hormone free” now informs diners about healthier, more ethical, or eco-friendly meat choices, future menus might be read with similar mindsets looking for “cultivated” or “cell-based.” So if these value-enhancing descriptions imply a (at least perceived) better quality of conventional meat, why wouldn’t cultivated meat be able to win out in future best-in-cuts competitions by the same logic in every category?
Blanchette, Alex. 2020. Porkopolis : American Animality, Standardized Life & the Factory Farm. Durham: Duke University Press.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life : An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.